Missouri Compromise

Another factor that increased tensions between America's northern and southern regions was territorial expansion. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) had bought a huge parcel of land in North America from

France for $15 million. This acquisition of land, known as the Louisiana Purchase, added more than eight hundred thousand square miles to the United States. The Louisiana Purchase was a very sound investment for America, since the land would eventually make up all or part of thirteen states (Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Louisiana, Kansas, Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming).

After completing the transaction with France, the United States divided the Louisiana Territory into several smaller territories. It was agreed that as these territories became settled, they would be able to apply for statehood and join the Union. But when the Missouri Territory applied for statehood in 1818, the issue of slavery immediately emerged as an obstacle. Missouri had petitioned Congress for statehood as a slaveholding state. This news pleased the Southerners. After all, if Missouri was admitted as a slave state, the number of slave states in the Union would be greater than the number of free (nonslave) states by a twelve-to-eleven count. This in turn would mean that the South would have more senators in the U.S. Senate than the North, since each state was representated by two senators. (State representation in the United States' other major legislative body, the House of Representatives, was determined by population size; since the population in the North was higher than in the South, the North was able to send a greater number of representatives to the House than the South.)

In the Northern United States, however, many people objected to the idea of admitting Missouri as a slave state.

At first it seemed as if North and South would never reach agreement on Missouri's status. Tempers flared as representatives of each side suggested solutions that were unacceptable to the other side. Politicians from the North argued that slavery should be banned in all new states, while Southern legislators insisted that each state should have the right to determine for itself whether to allow slavery within its borders. With each passing day, anger about the issue boiled a little higher. As the deadlock over the conditions of Missouri's admission continued, a worried Thomas Jefferson wrote that "this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once the knell [sign of disaster] of the Union."

Finally, a powerful senator from Kentucky named Henry Clay (1777-1852) put together a compromise plan that both sides grudgingly accepted. Under the terms of Clay's plan, Missouri would be admitted into the Union as a slave state. But at the same time, a section of the Northern state of Massachusetts known as Maine would be admitted into the Union as a free state. This arrangement would ensure a continued balance in the number of slave and non-slave states. In addition, Clay's Missouri Compromise of 1820 established a line across the midsection of American territory above which slav ery would not be permitted. This line preserved most of the remaining land gained through the Louisiana Purchase from slavery. But as Northern abolitionists bitterly observed, Clay's compromise did not offer protection to present or future U.S. lands south of the line.

Few people were completely happy with the Missouri Compromise. Southern whites viewed the agreement as another indication that Northern antislavery feelings threatened to destroy their economic and social system. Northerners were distressed that the compromise allowed for the introduction of slavery into new territories. Both sides wanted to avoid a crisis, however, and most people were relieved when Clay's compromise was accepted. But even as the country congratulated itself for avoiding a showdown between the North and the South, a few people recognized that the Missouri Compromise had only delayed the clash over slavery that was brewing. Former U.S. president John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), for example, called the 1820 debate over slavery nothing less than "a title page to a great, tragic volume."

In the years immediately after the passage of the Missouri Compromise, arguments about the future of slavery in the United States subsided somewhat. In the late 1830s and 1840s, however, the Northern abolitionist movement became stronger than ever before, and arguments about the legality of slavery in America's western territories resurfaced. The citizens of the North and the South were forced to turn their attention back to slavery once again.

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